We look to people like us as role models of what we can achieve. It’s one of the reasons why, in business, the severe lack of BAME (black, Asian and minority ethnic) and female leaders is so harmful. 

The message this lack of representation sends to people who might aspire to one day sit on a board or be a CEO is that these roles are exclusively for white men. 

As children, we aspire to be astronauts; superheroes; kings and queens. We learn about these people through stories and a lack of diversity in those stories sends exactly the same message as a lack of diversity in the boardroom. 

A black or Asian child who can only find stories about white characters will grow up with the mindset that the roles they aspire to aren’t for them.

They will be reminded that they are different and, as they grow and enter the workplace, may accept the mindset that they are somehow less capable or less deserving than their white colleagues. 

To tackle this problem, we must first understand the full extent of it. Last year, a survey by The Centre for Literacy in Primary Education found that despite a third (33%) of students in UK schools being BAME, only 4% of the protagonists in children's books in the UK are BAME. The number of new children’s books in which a BAME character features at all stood at just 7%. 

To add insult to injury, the report also found that 42% of children’s books published in the UK in 2018 had animals or inanimate objects as “main cast characters,” meaning that a BAME child is considerably more likely to read a story in which an animal is the main character than they are to read one in which a character shares their ethnicity or cultural heritage. 

A significant part of the problem is the lack of opportunity for BAME authors, editors and publishers to make their mark on the stories produced. Last year, the Publishers Association’s second annual diversity survey investigated the diversity of the publishing industry. Whilst 11.6% of its respondents identified as BAME it does not show the type of roles held and the figure itself was 1.4% lower than that of the previous year.  

The publishing industry is historically the playground of the white middle class, but there are various efforts underway to address this issue. Stormzy, for instance, has set up and curates #Merky Books, an imprint within William Heinemann. 

The imprint launched with Stormzy’s book, Rise Up, in autumn 2018, followed by Taking Up Space: The Black Girl’s Manifesto for Change by Chelsea Kwakye and Ore Ogunbiyi in summer 2019, and is dedicated to publishing the best new fiction, non-fiction and poetry from a new generation of voices. 

Similarly, there are a growing number of publishers dedicated solely to producing books featuring a diverse range of characters. Knights Of is one such example, a publishing company describing its mission as “working with writers, illustrators, agents, retailers and other publishers to make books better.” 

Considering the power of literature, work such as this is essential if we are to address the wider racial inequality that is skewing our society. 

After all, we’re a storytelling species. We learn lessons from stories that stay with us for life, particularly from those that we’ve read at a young age. They inspire us, teach us right from wrong, and in some cases, give us an idea of the kind of people we want to be. 

Real change requires more than isolated instances of diversity, though. While organisations like #Merky Books and Knights Of should be applauded for the work that they’re doing, their very existence is a sign of how much further we have to go.  We need to reach a point whereby a diverse bookshop isn’t a novelty, but simply a bookshop.  Whereby a diverse story is simply a story. 

To achieve this goal, we need to see action across the board. We need widespread recognition of the problem and a conscious effort to bring more diverse talent into the publishing industry. 

But as the diversity survey data shows, that addresses just one issue – retaining that talent is another. 

Only then, when there are a range of voices, cultures and outlooks contributing to the books that our children read, are we likely to see real, meaningful change. 

Professor Binna Kandola is co-founder and senior partner, Pearn Kandola